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ESOL classes with a difference for Lancaster asylum seekers and refugees during lockdown

One year ago we had two ESOL classes in Lancaster which met on a Friday afternoon for two hours each and were taught by two ESOL volunteer tutors. We supplemented the local Lancaster and Morecambe College classes that were running on three other days and there every student was able to attend six hours of teaching.

By June 2019 we were told that the College had cuts in their budget and also needed to follow the government rule of not allowing new asylum seekers to join ESOL lessons at the College for their first six months in the UK. This of course is the most crucial time to help someone to integrate into the community and motivate them to learn English. So we stepped up and also put on lessons on a Wednesday afternoon. With numbers rising by January 2020 we had nine classes in three different venues: beginners, E 1, E 2 , E 3 and also a GCSE class that met only once a week.

friends meeting house lancaster

English at Friends Meeting House Lancaster

We started offering ESOL classes in January 2016 and with matters getting more complex in 2017 I took on the role of coordinator and now oversee classes and venues but I also recruited around 16 volunteers who meet students on a one-to-one basis as some of them are single Mums with toddlers at home or some students have special needs or challenges and need support.

Over the last winter we were especially lucky as we managed to have around two extra volunteer assistants in most of our regular classes. They had been DBS checked and we usually interview folks and get them to sign agreements ref health, safety and confidentiality.

With the lockdown in mid March we were thrown into unknown territory. We quickly had to learn Zoom technology and a big help was our what’s app group that includes 146 asylum seekers, refugees, ESOL teachers and volunteers. We ask new arrivals to join so they get notices ref classes or any other events in town plus where and when they can get advice. Although most of our folks are more used to modern technology we felt they had some resistance to access Zoom classes as they thrive in a supportive class energy and with face-to-face contacts.

Over the past months we managed to get things up and running again and all 9 classes have been meeting again since mid April !! It feels a fabulous success and is much appreciated by students. Here are the steps that made it happen :

  1. At first I asked tutors or class volunteers to text individual students and find out how they’re doing. It often turned into a regular what’s app call or sometimes a video call. The higher level tutors emailed their students – again more with the intention of pastoral care.
  2. As I’m overseeing our what’s app group I could send out messages offering one-to-one conversation chats and tell folks that we’re setting up classes again. Communication between City of Sanctuary ESOL teachers and the asylum seekers was absolutely crucial and it felt so important for them to know they could get in touch by texting, calling and asking for whatever they needed. We kept a record who was responding and who still needed to be contacted.
  3. Having translators for the main languages is also most important. We have Arabic, Kurdish Sorani, Farsi, Tigrinia and Spanish and we luckily have five refugees who also have a small paid job with Global Link – one of our partner organisations – and they are happy to help. It’s essential that information gets clearly and simply put out and then translated.
  4. We then introduced Zoom in the higher levels and students learned how to download the program and access classes. We started with shorter sessions as Zoom needs much more concentration. We also asked students to help other students in their house to download Zoom. As they’re in accommodation with 4 – 8 people the technology got mostly sorted even in lockdown.
  5. The beginners level was very slow to organise. We have five translators in our community and I asked them or other fluent speakers who had friends not connected yet to help folks understand Zoom and how to get back to classes.
  6. Some tutors then included aspects of teaching in their calls, other tutors started to send out homework by email – it was all very much geared to each individual group. For the beginners and E 1 I delivered or we posted worksheets to the students which helped them learning more easily.
  7. We needed support from Global Link which oversees the support of our local asylum seekers community with advice, drop-ins and various other events. From various places they manifested laptops for people to get on loan and from funds that aren’t used for drop-ins they’re paying a monthly data boost that gives students WiFi access via hotspots. So a good partnership with local organisations that can chip in and offer support is very important.
  8. Another crucial point is the commitment and willingness to adapt by the team of tutors. We are very lucky and everyone has risen to the occasion and up skilled. One of the tutors has taken on a leading role and sent tutorials round, sets up our ESOL tutors meetings and is now doing one-to-one teaching with some tutors to help them learn the higher level of Zoom.We have indeed a great team and are still assisted with extra volunteers in our Zoom lessons. The trustees of City of Sanctuary have just written individual cards to the tutors to thank them. One-to-one teaching has its rewards but working this way needs extra acknowledgement and appreciation. I facilitate fortnightly Zoom meetings for the tutors and we share good practice, discuss challenges and offer mutual support. I’m just setting up a ESOL library for those who would like more input.
  9. As the groups settled down I decided that it’s time to move into more effective teaching. As we have money from a lottery grant and don’t use it for rent we agreed to buy course books for each group and I delivered them to the houses. The students felt really excited and grateful plus it motivated their self study. This also makes preparing lessons and setting homework so much easier for the tutors.
  10. As lockdown restrictions are slowly eased we decided yesterday that we’ll offer each student in the beginners class a buddy they could meet in the park or in a public space once a week.They can chat but also discuss homework. Of course this is done by volunteers we checked before and have their DBS check in place and have signed volunteer forms. The beginners group has the greatest need for extra encouragement and needs face-to-face contact to keep motivated.
  11. We are trying to make our lessons meaningful and from giving students an opportunity to talk about their experience of lockdown and express their feelings we are now looking to cherish their hobbies and support them with getting active and being inspired. Together with Global Link we’ll be doing a Zoom presentation for the community during Refugee Week where they can show their talents be it writing a poem, showing a painting or performing a song.

Dorothea Williamson, ESOL coordinator for Lancaster and Morecambe City of Sanctuary, [email protected]

Lancaster, 29th May 2020